What is Military Learning in the C21st?


Dr Louise Kettle is an Assistant Professor at the School of Politics and International Relations at the University of Nottingham. Her research examines how lessons from history are learned and the relationship between Britain and the Middle East. Her latest book Learning from the History of British Interventions in the Middle East is out now. You can find her on twitter @LouiseSKettle.

‘Without learning, the wise become foolish; by learning, the foolish become wise.’


The ability to learn has long been debated by philosophers and psychologists, as has the nature of learning itself. Unpicking these challenges and applying them to the military context reveals the nuances of approaches to learning already being used but also strategic challenges for military learning in the 21stcentury.

What is learning?

There is considerable research on learning with a spectrum of ideas on what learning is, how it occurs and its subsequent impact. Cognitive psychologists tend to consider learning as an individual’s internal appropriation of new knowledge, whether it is used or not. Behavioural psychologists, by contrast, contend that learning occurs only when new knowledge actually affects behaviour. On the other hand, constructivists, argue that knowledge must have an effect on underlying beliefs, rather than behaviour, to truly represent the definition of learning.

For other scholars learning has a teleological aspect whereby new knowledge must cause change in a manner that is accurate, corrective or increases effectiveness or efficiency. For them, learning incorrectly, ineffectively or learning the ‘wrong’ lesson is not considered to be ‘true’ learning. For others, learning is best understood by its distinction from other concepts – change, adaption and evolution – because learning can also reinforce existing beliefs and behaviours.

In many cases the definition of learning has been advanced differently by both scholars and practitioners; one where learning is a scholarly research topic, distant from practice, sceptical and neutral in approach, defined for study; and another whereby learning is practice-orientated, prescriptive and value committed, perhaps reasserting the ‘fools and cowards’ distinction that characterises some debates about modern military education. However, the most recently developed learning theory, connectivism, tries to bridge the gap between these two approaches by seeing learning as a process of connecting information sources. It has also been specifically developed for the digital age and is, therefore, worth our consideration in the context of how militaries can and do learn

In many ways the military already addresses each of these approaches through different methods – the cognitive through education, the behavioural through training, a combination of cognitive and behavioural through battlefield studies, the teleological through the lessons process, distinction from change through best practise and the connective through digital resources such as AKX – but each of these forms of learning need not be treated as distinct. A comprehensive assessment of military learning in the 21stcentury needs to include developing a closer understanding of the interaction and intersections between these different approaches and methods. For example, should lessons stand distinct from history and only be focused on the most recent operations? Could learnings from the classroom feed into the lessons process? Could digital resources be used more effectively in training?

What is the process of learning?

Learning is not a monolithic action but a process. This process can be broken down into four stages; identification, implementation, distribution and retention. For learning to be successful in the long-term, all four stages must be encountered. This process is used routinely by lessons teams within the military but applies across all forms of learning.

The first stage of the learning process is identification, when knowledge is acquired (cognitive approach) and interpreted (constructivist approach). Learning is therefore defined here as ‘a process starting with the acquisition of knowledge’.

Knowledge can be acquired through internal or external sources. Internally, knowledge is usually acquired from direct experience and the intentional development of knowledge through, for example, investigation, research and development or education. External knowledge is usually from one of four sources; learning from the observation of others (as Otto von Bismarck famously stated ‘Fools say they learn by experience, I prefer to profit by other people’s experiences’), in cooperation with others (sharing experiences), the intentional use of external experts (including academics) or the acquisition of new information sources, such as technologies or blueprints. Once knowledge is acquired it is interpreted as relevant through the prisms of biases, beliefs, goals, current and future activities and ambitions.

Implementation is the stage of the learning process whereby knowledge is used (behaviourist approach). This could be in making a decision, updating doctrine or reinforcing training but if implementation does not take place lessons risk being forgotten.

Retention is the stage of the learning process whereby a lesson is recorded for the future (connectivist approach). In some cases it may not be necessary to implement a lesson immediately, in others it may be important that the information is accessible for other learners, but retention in both cases ensures that lessons are not forgotten. Retention can be through a variety of methods; memory, personal or official papers, structures, processes, attitudes, language or symbols.

The final stage of learning is distribution. In order to advance the learning process, lessons must be distributed (or taught) to others. This, in turn, begins the process for another learner as the distribution becomes a source for knowledge acquisition. Again, distribution can occur through a number of different methods; circulation of a note, holding a conference, formal education or informal discussions.

In the 21stcentury new methods have become available for all four stages of the learning process. Many learners also respond better to learning using new technologies and, in many cases, these methods also improve accessibility and efficiency. Consequently, a re-evaluation of the methods used for each stage of the learning process may help to improve learning more generally. For example, a recent – small scale – piece of research conducted with the British Army revealed a high demand for apps as a method for learning (as part of retention, distribution and acquisition). There are already a number of apps available on the Defence Gateway but increasingly access to digital resources is through portable devices.

Who learns?

To understand the most effective method for learning at each stage of the process consideration must be made of the target audience for learning; the learner. In the military there has often been a significant focus on eitherindividualsorthe organisation, perhaps without adequate reflection of the interaction between the two, and often without extensive consideration of other learners. Individual learning had always been the first consideration for psychologists too; when the nineteenth century brought about the scientific study of learning, psychologists began by examining individuals. Since then education studies has focused on developing ideas on how to maximise learning by the individual through pedagogy (the learning and practise of teaching), andragogy (learning in adults) and heutagogy (self-determined learning).

However, social psychologists have extended the idea of the individual as a learner and sought to establish groups of individuals as an alternative agent of learning. In their work they have examined how individuals are influenced by the actual, imagined or implied presence of others so that the group itself forms its own identity, learning its own lessons through socialisation, culture and establishment of group norms. In the military, this can take place within a friendship group, a squad, platoon and all the way up through regiment and beyond. Groups of learners provide new possibilities and new challenges for learning which must be considered. For example, the group can restrict certain ideas, sometimes leading to ‘group think’, or rely on the lessons of group leaders over those provided by the organisation.

Although groups of individuals come in many forms, one category that has traditionally been overlooked in the military’s formal learning process is generations; those individuals bound by being within a certain rank or age range during a particular point in time. Generations can learn differently from each other as experience, recency of events, the impact of events during one’s wakening consciousness and the impact of societal understandings can all affect what is learned. Additionally, learning can occur incrementally, over a long period of time, and further events will impact what has been learned from a previous event. Generations provide a collective memory reflective of a majority view and cross-generational learning can be of great value to ensure that lessons do not get lost over time.

On the contrary, the military has devoted significant time to the study of organisational learning whereby the organisation itself is a learner – an agent in the learning process. Whilst individuals within an organisation must bring new skills and knowledge for organisational learning to occur, organisations offer systems, structures, resources and influences which impact upon the learning of individuals. These ensure that learning is used to achieve group goals and that they are retained beyond the memory of an individual. Robert T Foley, for example, demonstrates how the institutional organisation of the British and German armies during the First World War led to very different ways of learning.

No learner exists in a vacuum or are mutually exclusive to the others. Instead, learners overlap and interact; individuals form the workforce in institutions and the collective group of people that create a generation, thus it is logical that these will overlap. Similarly, a generation of employees exist within an institution whilst an institution frames the experiences of individuals and generations. The space where all of these learners overlap is where learning is the most effective, in terms of impact and longevity, and a strategy for learning in the military in the 21stcentury needs to consider how to encourage each different learner to optimise its role at each stage of the learning process.

Consequently, there are four main strategic challenges to current military learning. Firstly, learning must be understood as wider than education and include a comprehensive approach to the number of methods currently being used. Secondly, each of these methods need to be assessed based on whether they fulfil all stages of the learning process to ensure long-term learning. Thirdly, learning must be tailored to the specific learner in mind. Fourthly, the value of generations as learners must not be overlooked in the learning process.

Image: inquiry learning word cloud via flickr.

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